In Defence of Internet Dating.

Maybe I’m not very romantic. But maybe that’s because a lot of ‘romance’ seems to involve a relinquishing of power and control. That’s why I love internet dating. Although it’s definitely, definitely losing its stigma, a lot of people are still weirded out by it.  It feels like it’s ok for me to do it, but the idea that they might do it is tragic, hilarious and kind of gross.

The truth is, I just don’t meet people in real life. I mean, yes, I meet people, but we’re almost in November now, and I have not met one single person in 2012 in everyday real life that I could realistically have had a romantic or sexual relationship with. I have not met anyone this year who was available, with whom there was a spark. Not one person. (If you know me and you know this to be untrue, please remind me because I really honestly cannot think of anyone)

So I look at dating and relationships and sex a bit like I look at employment: I don’t sit around waiting for someone to offer me a kickass job. I think about the kind of job I want, then I go look for it and I apply for it and I see if it works out. That’s especially how I view and value internet dating. It allows people to represent themselves as they wish, and then I can assess what they want me to know about them and see if I think it would be worth meeting. Now, I have the added bonus of being on OkCupid, which I consider to be the greatest of all dating sites because a) it’s completely free b) there are loads of hotties of all genders c) it has uses pretty sweet and reliable algorithms to determine the compatibility of each member with every other member.

I sort of ‘mated for life’ with OkCupid, and don’t feel the need to try any other sites because I’ve had such great results, but that means when I talk about ‘internet dating’ I’m really just talking about OkCupid.

It’s not always good, and I don’t always fancy them, but honestly, if you want to make yourself feel better about not doing it by telling yourself the internet is exclusively populated by weirdos and rapists then be my guest. But it just ain’t true (the first time I went home with one man, he told me he had an enhanced CRB check so he probably wasn’t going to murder me. He didn’t murder me.). Pretty much every time I go somewhere interesting, like a gig by an artist I like, or Unskinny Bop, or the anarchist bookfair, I see people I recognise off OkCupid. It’s a hive for people who are into cool stuff, and because of the matching algorithms, it’s highly likely that if you’re into one cool thing, you’ll end up matched highly with someone who also likes that cool thing. How much I like someone is often dependent on how good they are on Twitter, and most people who are really good on Twitter are also on OkCupid.

The best thing about internet dating is the ability to be extremely uncompromising with what information you give people straight away. For a nonmonogamous person it’s especially useful because you can be upfront about your nonmonogamous status. Unfortunately it’s a dealbreaker for some, so it’s nice to be able to filter out those people that, realistically, you just don’t want to be meeting romantically. Personally, I don’t want to meet anyone who isn’t a feminist, so I make my feminist-ness prominent on my profile. I don’t want people to contact me if they’re solely monogamous, so I say that you should only contact me if you’re into nonmonogamy. I have a full-length photo of me so if they hate fat people, then they don’t message me. I make it clear that I Am An Internet Person so if they’re going to be all icky about meeting someone from the internet, then they should probably talk to someone else. I’m upfront about the fact that, among other things, I’m interested in casual sex. In some cases, things that it’s extremely difficult to scope out in someone you’ve first met in real life before it’s too late, and things that I’m really grateful I can screen people for.

If you want to tell me it takes the ‘magic’ out of meeting someone, I’ll tell you that a one-night-stand with a cute Norwegian who’s only in town for the weekend is kind of magic. But more to the point: of all the people I’ve had great dates with, of all the people I’ve had sustained romantic relationships or sexual encounters with, I wouldn’t have met any of them in real life. Our social circles are just so different. They’re generally a lot older than me, and/or socialise in different ways to me, and/or are from different parts of town to me. But the internet was able to bring us together for mutual enjoyment/fucking/whatever.

It would be kind of cool if I didn’t just meet all my romantic/sexual partners on OkCupid so, er, if I know you IRL and you want to ask me out then please do that. But I’m kind of at peace with the fact that the internet is my medium. Although it’s a bit dry at the moment and I feel like I’ve exhausted the men of OkCupid (literally and metaphorically) and the women never like me very much anyway, I still have hope that the pool will refill itself.

Not gonna lie, I think it’s kind of cool that my boyfriend and I were brought together by a robot.

Image taken from Flickr under Creative Commons license.

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Trouble in paradise.

In my last post I wrote about how it’s not all that difficult to be in an open relationship. This one’s about lying awake at night, worrying about your open relationship.

This is not a post about catfights and girl-on-girl hate. It’s not a post about female jealousy. It’s about the terrifying and isolating realisation that I didn’t like my boyfriend’s other girlfriend.

Some Personal Stuff

He met her in the same week he met me. I always felt we were on even footing, and I really liked that idea. It was important to me to believe everyone was separate, equal and happy. An important part of the way I conceived the relationship was the understanding that what happened in his relationship with someone else had nothing to do with me. That it was happy on its own terms and not happy because it felt superior to my relationship.

We’d been together for about 4 months when the feeling began to creep over me that maybe to her, I wasn’t so separate and equal after all.

I had never met her, and to this day have only met her once. But, petty as it sounds, I began to feel that she was trying to assert her importance against me. I felt that she wanted to be recognised as more important than me. That she wanted to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind as his girlfriend, at my expense. I wondered what I’d done to make her feel that she needed to do that. Unless you’re trying to argue about feminism with me on Twitter, I’m an extremely, almost embarrassingly polite person. I conduct all my relationships with a near-paranoid consideration for other partners. I ask how they are, I want them to be well-looked-after and I want them to feel like I’m with them, rather than against them. There is no advantage to existing in opposition to someone who basically wants the same thing as me.

This feeling of being slyly undermined via ~a popular social networking site~ coincided with the realisation that I found some of her… shall we call them ‘politics’ or ‘ethics’… troublesome. I ran an anecdote past a couple of friends whose opinions I trust and they were just as shocked and weirded out as I was. In the most basic terms, she struck me as a mean person. And a mean person who was trying to make me feel small.

I stewed in my unhappiness for a couple of weeks, gritting my teeth when he mentioned her until it felt too much. At the bus stop, in the rain, on our way home after a night out, I confessed.

I felt guilty for speaking up because by speaking up, I became the aggressor. I was rocking the boat. If I said nothing, then I wouldn’t look bad. I wouldn’t look like I was making trouble. But I couldn’t keep it up. I would literally lay awake at night wondering what I’d done to make her feel like she needed to make me sad. So I spoke, and, because my boyfriend is a kind and generous person, he understood.

In the beginning, I pushed him a little bit. I wanted to know if he’d noticed her weird behaviour too, so I remember being slightly drunk, on the top deck of the bus saying ‘DO YOU REALLY NOT KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT? YOU CAN’T THINK OF ANYTHING SHE’S DONE THAT I MIGHT BE UPSET ABOUT?’ until he quietly mumbled something about Facebook. Knowing it wasn’t all in my head was a huge relief. I explained how sorry I was and how guilty I felt about falling into the one trap I didn’t want to fall into. I told him how I never wanted her to feel like she needed to act up or prove she was important and that I wasn’t sure how it had come to this. He said he wished he’d introduced us in real life, and earlier on, so we ‘understood each other better’. We both knew it was too late. I was angry and stressed but I didn’t issue any ultimatums. There wasn’t even a hint of pressuring him into choosing who he cared more about. I just needed to tell him she was making me feel unhappy and anxious. I guess that’s my one ‘lesson’ from this experience: the thing I know I did right is never, ever saying ‘it’s her or me’. Getting it off my chest was enough. Stating my case, on its own terms, was enough. Being listened to was enough. Being told no, I wasn’t being paranoid, was enough.

I don’t know if anything really changed after that, but feeling like I wasn’t hiding some secret shame, alone, really helped. He mentioned her to me less, and understood when I voiced disagreement. Even if nothing tangible changed, I felt better for trusting my boyfriend to accept my worries. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Some General Stuff

This was a time I was painfully aware of the lonely position of the nonmonogamous person. I sat on my fears without saying anything to anyone for longer than I should have, and I did that because I felt my nonmonogamous relationship would be judged as a failure.

I feel enormous pressure to be Good At This. I feel enormous pressure not to live up to many people’s banal expectations of the pitfalls of open relationships. I felt like a failure, and I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to who would understand. I guess that’s part of my motivation in writing this blog- the desire to put another voice out there expressing an experience of nonmonogamy.

But as it was, it was difficult. I didn’t want people looking at my relationship and seeing a cliché of ‘female jealousy’. I didn’t want people seeing this as being narrative when it was only incidental. I didn’t want to undermine the generally extremely happy landscape of my relationship. It showed, in particularly sharp focus, the scrutiny I felt I was under and the pressure to be a perfect partner because my ‘rareness’ as a nonmonogamous person made me feel like I was being held up as an example.

Some Gender Stuff

I feel that because I am a woman, it is expected that I will compete with other women. I will especially compete with other women for the attentions and affections of a man. Nowhere will that competition be more obvious and more anticipated than in an open relationship with multiple female partners. I feel that, as a woman, I have a huge amount of responsibility not to fall into these traps and clichés of ‘female behaviour’. They are at the forefront of my mind, and it was this pressure that made the situation particularly stressful. I felt that I was living up to the expectation of a female partner in an open relationship. Of course I would have a problem with another girlfriend. Of course I wouldn’t like her. That’s what women do, isn’t it?

But I knew all the while, even when I felt guilty, this wasn’t about women. This was about me relating to another person. I wasn’t jealous of her, I just didn’t like her. It wouldn’t matter what space she occupied in my life, and it was just unfortunate she was in such a sensitive one.

I knew this wasn’t about women because there are lots of ‘other women’ in his life that I really, really like. Women I would love to meet and talk to. Women I’ve loved meeting and talking to. Women whose work I admire. Women past and present. Women who make me laugh and make me nod my head in agreement. I really mean this, in very real terms: I seriously admire and would actively pursue friendships with past and former partners of this same guy. Kickass women make the world go round and I want there to be great women in his life because he deserves great women.

This was never about women.

Boyfriend and I bumped into her several months after the initial issues were raised. This is the only time I’ve ever met her. She was rude. I was still embarrassingly polite. He stood up for her. I was pissed off at him. I was pissed off at him until I realised I would rather he defended her to me than defended me to her. I don’t want anyone to need to defend me. 

Image taken from Flickr under Creative Commons license

(if, somehow, this falls into the hands of the subject : I’m sorry if this makes you feel bad)

I make it look easy because it is to me.

Sometimes people want to talk to me, or more formally, interview me, about my experiences as a nonmonogamous person. One of the questions that always comes up is about how difficult it must be, emotionally and logistically. There’s an assumption that the choice to have open relationships requires a great deal of ‘work’, that they are extraordinarily laborious and that all the partners involved spend much more time talking about the state of their relationship than doing anything else.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m an extremely sensitive, soft, easily-wounded person, so if you’re assuming you have to be particularly cold and heartless to be nonmonogamous then you’re wrong. It’s not easy because I don’t care. I’m neither cold nor heartless, but I stand by the belief that it’s just not as difficult to organise your relationships like this as many seem to believe it is.

I’ve read the ‘key text’ for nonmonogamists, The Ethical Slut, cover to cover twice. Even the bits that were irrelevant to my situation, just so I didn’t miss anything. I read it once when I had a vague idea that this was what I wanted to do, and then I re-read it once I was cheerfully ensconced in an open relationship. What I found when I read it for the second time was that it was predicting lots of problems to come as standard that just weren’t happening to me. For example, it has still never occurred to me to set up boundaries in any relationship beyond ‘let’s see what we want from this and try not to hurt each other’s feelings’. Setting limits beyond my own is an alien concept to me. Aside from when a partner asked if they could ask out a colleague of mine, I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘I’d rather you didn’t do that’. It seems to predict massive scheduling conflicts and preaches the virtues of online diary-sharing. I’ve never found this to be a problem.

I’ve been asked the question ‘what if you’re out for a drink with your boyfriend and he goes home with some girl in the bar?’. I wouldn’t know because that has literally never happened to me. That’s not part and parcel of an open relationship!

I check in every so often (every few months), awkwardly asking if ‘everything is going generally as you want it to’, but it’s not a constant process of talking, negotiating, validating, reassuring. Most of the time my bonds just neatly tick along much in the way that friendships do- requiring deep analysis only when a particular obstacle comes up.

The truth is, there just aren’t that many obstacles. And even fewer obstacles worth turning into an object of discussion. (I’ll do some deep thinking and consultation before I write about the one part of my relationship that has caused me theoretical and practical angst rather than skimming over it here).

To reprise an earlier phrase: ‘it’s not easy because I don’t care’. It’s easy because I know what I care about. I don’t care what my partners do with other people, but I do care about what they do with me. And it’s just as easy to manage that bond as it is to manage any interpersonal relationship. I don’t care about seeing any partner more than once a week, but I do care if things are intervening to make this not happen. Knowing what’s important to me and what isn’t makes this whole enterprise pretty manageable.

It’s not always easy, but it’s not that difficult.

Photo taken from Flickr under Creative Commons license

Emotionally unavailable? Not in my back yard.

 

Image

One of the easiest accusations to level against a nonmonogamist is that they are a commitment-phobe. It happens over and over again. In casual conversation or in comment threads, it’s there. A couple of choice examples from the comments on an article on polyamory that the Guardian ran earlier this year: ‘It’s like all these people have given up on the idea of fidelity and intimacy, and they have just settled for screwing around‘ , ‘Emotional unavailability, nothing more less‘ (I assume there are some missing words in that comment but whatever). I’ll politely let rude and antagonistic people air their views about the way I’m doing stuff until they pull that one. If you try to tell me I do this because I’m incapable of real emotion then I will stamp on your toes and poke you in the eyes. Maybe some nonmonogamists are emotionally unavailable, but so are a lot of single monogamous people. Nonmonogamy is not characterised wholesale by an aversion to commitment and emotional availability. I am more than capable of committing, and I do it.

One of the reasons I do this whole thing is because my cup runneth over. I don’t date multiple people because I don’t have enough feelings, but because I can’t make my brain restrict those feelings to one person. I’m not incapable of affection, I’m too capable of affection. To me there’s nothing worse than ring-fencing myself into one romantic relationship when I know that I’ll always be inclined towards sharing my affection with others. 

The argument that nonmonogamists are emotionally unavailable is a hollow one. It quite clearly implies that the only thing motivating us is sex (and that in turn implies that sex isn’t a good enough reason to do anything) when most of us know that isn’t the case. It’s really fucking difficult to avoid attachment if you feel it. Dating 10 people wouldn’t make your instinctive response to them any less clear. Going over to your FWB’s house for an afternoon doesn’t make you suppress the warm, fuzzy, stomach-flipping feeling you get when you think about that nice guy you’ve had a few dates with. You don’t avoid it by diluting the numbers. You don’t avoid it at all. 

Why have we taken it for granted that commitment and monogamy are synonyms? Why is it such a surprise that you can be emotionally available to more than one person? When I commit to a partner it is implicit that this means they can trust me with their feelings. That I’ll be cautious and not try to hurt them. That I want to dedicate time to them. That I find them attractive on their terms (not more attractive than someone I’m already seeing). That I want to engage with them and know about them. And this is just as true for the way I treat a casual sex partner as the way I treat someone I ‘date’ in more traditional terms.

The structure may suggest avoidance and unavailability but really it’s about knowing your emotional resources aren’t finite. That you’re an adult and you’re capable of figuring out if you have enough warm feeling towards a potential partner to be kind to them and treat them in the way they deserve, even if ‘all’ you do with them is have sex. That commitment does not mean exclusivity, and you can build something fun and special and remarkable with more than one person while always looking after their feelings.

 (Photo of love locks taken from Flickr under Creative Commons license)

The whys and wherefores.

I once asked my boyfriend why he chose to be nonmonogamous. ‘Because when I’m in a monogamous relationship I want to have sexual adventures with other people’. I wasn’t expecting him to return the question, but he did, and it was then I realised I hadn’t ever put it into words before. I thought for a moment, before actually saying what I’d never said. ‘I never want to know what’s going to happen. Or… what’s definitely not going to happen’.

In brief, I really like options. And excitement. And enthusiasm. I never want to know that something is off-limits to me. Life is short and I’m trying to power through it in a whirlwind fashion, experiencing as many people and places and things as I can, in a way that makes me feel happy and comfortable and fulfilled. If I can power through life like this, without hurting anyone, then I think I’m doing right by myself.

The overriding reason for why I do this is because I can’t bear the idea that I know what my future is supposed to look like. The minute I’m settled into something that’s meant to be indefinite (like a monogamous relationship with someone really nice and good-looking and charming and clever) I start to panic a little bit. I panic because I convince myself I’m going to meet someone just as amazing the next day. I panic because I know I have it in me to cheat. I panic because I’m too responsible for someone else’s feelings. I panic because I’m too invested in them. All these panics feed off each other and perpetuate themselves and tangle up and then, horribly, come true. It’s like they make themselves come true because I become a pressure cooker of fear and anxiety. My mind and my feelings just don’t work with monogamy.

It’s a classic case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. Or rather, ‘it’s not you, it’s me and them’. Wanting to go for a drink with a cute someone who I might make out with or I might go to bed with or I might keep seeing is never a rejection of anyone I’m already seeing. The fear that I’m going to ‘meet someone just as amazing the next day’ isn’t because I’m sitting in my current relationship, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for a way out, it’s because I find other people exciting and attractive and I want to see how we can work with each other for a nice experience (as I mentioned in my first post).

I have done monogamy. I did it for 4 years, non-stop, with 3 partners. I can do it. I just don’t want to.

‘I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep’, I said. ‘Or promises you don’t want to keep’, replied my boyfriend. And I realised he was right. Why had I spent so long punishing myself for not being good at something when really all I needed was a different something? It’s not a skill, it’s an inclination. Skill is being able to wallpaper a room or speak another language or play the harp or code a website. There’s no skill in only wanting to have sex with one person. Or only wanting to gaze lovingly into the eyes of one person. It’s just what makes some people’s lives easier and more pleasant. And what makes my life easier and more pleasant is being able to indulge, guilt-free in the stuff that makes other people seem great to me.

I have something of an excess of affection, sexual attraction, capacity for caring, desire for adventure, propensity for daydreaming. None of these get switched off when I’m in a relationship, monogamous or otherwise. I will always feel this stuff, no matter how cute or funny or intelligent my partner is. It’s not about them, ever, at all, and as long as I’m being a good partner to them, I refuse to feel any guilt about having more of that good stuff to distribute among other willing participants.